A report on setting and streaming commissioned by the Scottish Office has made a timely appearance in the new Government's first week in office. Wynne Harlen, director of the Scottish Council for Research in Education, said after carrying out a review of 133 national and international studies: "The research seems to have something to please everybody."
The consensus appears to support the view of those who criticised last October's HMI report on Achievement for All, which strongly urged setting by ability, that the way classes are organised is not the real issue.
Professor Harlen said: "A common theme in the conclusions from the studies was that what goes on in classrooms seems likely to have more impact on achievement than how pupils are grouped. Differences in classroom materials and learning activities often explained differences in achievement."
The HMI report, in particular its subtitle "selection within schools", unleashed protests from directors of education, headteachers and others that the Inspectorate had bought the agenda of its political masters. HMIs vigorously denied this, pointing out privately that they would not have been allowed to dismiss the arguments for streaming so vigorously if the report was politically driven.
Graham Donaldson, HM depute senior chief inspector, tried to reassure headteachers in February that secondary schools would not be forced to set first and second year pupils by ability in key subjects.
But while the Inspectorate said it would "not seek to prescribe one form of class organisation for all schools", Mr Donaldson added that headteachers would have to justify their policy if they did not use setting (TESS, February 7).
The research council review says it has proved difficult to reach hard-and-fast conclusions on the merits of setting, streaming and mixed-ability teaching.
"Studies generally involve comparing classes containing a full range of ability with those in which pupils are more similar in ability, " Professor Harlen states. "However the relative performance of pupils is affected by many factors other than the mix of ability. One of these is the extent of the ability range; in some studies, classes labelled mixed-abil ity may have been more similar in ability than those labelled ability-based in others.
"Other factors include class size, teaching methods and materials, the degree of differentiation, the teacher's attitude towards mixed-ability teaching and the demands of the subject being taught."
The strongest evidence for the success of ability grouping or setting came from maths teaching in primary schools, the research council found. There is an absence of research in other primary areas.
The report also makes uncomfortable reading for proponents of mixed-ability teaching, the overwhelming approach in the first two years of secondary. Such classes are "hard to manage and to teach".
The review adds: "There is evidence that teachers aim lessons at the middle of the ability range, sometimes treating mixed-ability groups as though they were low-ability streams. Research showed that even teachers with substantial experience of working with mixed-ability classes frequently use whole-class teaching methods which are inappropriate to mixed-ability groupings."
Professor Harlen concluded that neither subject sets nor mixed-ability classes will meet children's individual needs. Alternatives had to be found "urgently".
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